< January 02, 2011 >

Commentary on Psalm 147:12-20

 

Psalm 147 is one of five psalms that concludes the Psalter.

Each of these psalms has the words "Praise the Lord" as their first and last lines (see Psalms 146:1, 10; 147:1, 20). Thus, the call to praise God is their organizing feature. The general reason for praise in each case is that God has, or will deliver God's people from their troubles. Psalm 147 points specifically to God's word with which God brings order to the world and brings blessings to Jerusalem and its residents (verses 19-20). The lectionary portion of Psalm 147 highlights God's protection of the holy city, which is an expression of God's reign over the entire world.  

Psalm 147:12 contains the imperative "praise the Lord" (verse 12), the same imperative that opens and closes the psalm (verses 1, 20). Hence, Psalm 147:12-20 is a mini version of the whole work. Between the two calls to praise in verses 12 and 20 the psalm points to two reasons for that praise: God restores and blesses Jerusalem (verses 12-14) and the people of Jacob (verses 19-20a) and God reigns over the elements of the universe (verses 15-18).

Verse 12 calls specifically for Jerusalem and Zion to praise God. These two place names are here used as virtual synonyms to speak of the location of the temple (Zion being more specifically the hilltop in Jerusalem where the temple was built). As worshippers gathered there they sought God's presence and favor and offered songs of praise and thanksgiving like those called for early in this psalm (see verses 1, 7). The mention of Jerusalem in verse 12 recalls verse 2 which declares "the Lord builds Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel."

Verse 13 gives reason for praising God that forms the content of praise as well: "he strengthens the bars of your gates; he blesses your children within you." This declaration of God's deeds for Zion and its people matches the statement of verse 2: "The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel." Note that both sections of the psalm emphasize God's protection of the weak and powerless.

The mention of children in verse 13 recalls the emphasis on the weak and vulnerable earlier in the psalm: "outcasts" (verse 2) and "brokenhearted" (verse 3). Such persons in the Psalter are often termed "righteous" because they depend on God for protection (Psalm 37:39-40).1  The reference to children here invites anyone who would seek God's favor to come to God humbly, as Jesus suggested (Matthew 18:1-5).

The emphasis on God's protection of the weakest of Jerusalem's people in verse 13 is paired with the declaration that God strengthens the most vulnerable part of Zion's physical structure. Invading armies focused their attack on the city gate because that typically would be the easiest place to break through and capture the town.

Verse 14 focuses on the material needs of ordinary life and declares that God supplies those needs. The word "peace" translates the Hebrew shalom. In this case the word might better be translated "prosperity" (see the use of the term in Psalm 73:3, "the prosperity of the wicked"). Indeed, verse 14a says generally that God provides material blessings and verse 14b declares more specifically, "he fills you with the finest of wheat."

Verses 15-18 continue to catalog God's saving acts. This section turns attention, however, to God's rule over the natural realm and to the means by which God rules. Namely, God directs the world by means of God's word. Verse 15 includes "word" and "command" as parallels. The term translated "command" does not necessarily refer to legal pronouncements or injunctions (Psalm 17:6).

There is good reason to identify command with God's covenantal stipulations, however. Verses 19-20 will indeed declare that God sustains God's people by "statutes and ordinances" (note these terms are parallel to "word" in verse 19). Therefore, in verse 15 "command" should probably be understood in terms of God's ordering and directing word, like that given at Sinai. This specific and demanding word that rules over Israel also directs and reigns over the cosmos. 

Verse 18 hints at how divine command is a sign of grace. In this verse, God's word is associated with the force of the wind. The word for wind is ruach, which may also be translated "spirit." This same word appears in Genesis 1:2. When the chaotic waters covered the earth in the beginning God's wind or spirit hovered over them, the first sign of God's work to bring order to the creation. This is also what Psalm 147:18 claims. In Psalm 147, however, the work of the spirit also includes the protection of Jerusalem and it is associated with God's Law given on Sinai.  

Psalm 147:12-20 illustrates an essential truth of scripture: God's work in creation cannot be separated from God's saving work for humankind. God's actions for Israel fulfills God's intentions in creation. In Psalm 147 this connection features the role of God's word. God's command over the elements of the universe stands alongside, and is connected to God's work for Israel. The snow, frost, and hail (verses 16-17) are not just natural forces; they represent the power of the One who "declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel" (verse 19). This connection should not be a surprise to Christians. John 1:1-18 links creation and salvation specifically in terms of God's word: the Word that ordered the world in the beginning took on flesh in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 147 anticipates the ultimate expression of incarnation in Jesus by linking God's rule over the natural realm with God's salvation for Jerusalem. This connection makes the use of Psalm 147 quite appropriate for the Christmas season. The Word made flesh was known among God's people before the birth of Jesus. The proper response to the presence of God's creative and saving Word in any time is, as Psalm 147 declares, "Praise the Lord" (verses 1, 12, 20).


1See Jerome F. D. Creach, The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008).